Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Arma Mulierisque Cano

Per the Chronicle of Higher Ed, poet and classicist Sarah Ruden will soon be the first woman to publish a translation of Virgil's Aeneid.  The linked article is a fascinating glimpse at Ruden, and at the many other scholars working on this most contemporary of all epics.

Long ago, we at the Egg wrote a rambling master's thesis -- something about Hinduism or feminism, we forget which but it seemed important at the time.  One chapter was on the Aeneid, for which we confess an intemperate love, and especially on the role of women in same.  We argued that Virgil, even as he sings the glories of the Roman Empire, identifies with gimlet sharpness the cost of that empire.  It has been won, he says, at the cost of conquered peoples throughout the world:  the Carthaginians, whose queen is driven to suicide; the Rutulians, whose prince may be the noblest character in the poem; and the Volscians, whose crypto-amazonian princess represents the feminine power which appalled the ancients and fascinates us moderns.  

It is in fact Turnus, the Rutulian, who despises the Trojans/Romans because they are "given to hatred of all womankind."  That's not his only case against them -- they are conquering his country, after all -- but it is an important part of Virgil's astonishing self-subversion.  None of the men, women or nations put down by Rome are bad people, says Virgil; on the contrary, they are worthy, valorous, and often seem to have the moral upper hand.  Their shades press the question (literally, in Book 6) of whether Aeneas' manifest destiny is worth the price.

One wishes that the contemporary exponents of empire and imperialism were able to handle this degree of ambiguity.

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